I'm delighted to be able to present the first of two guest blogs by Mark Cocker, author of Nature's Home's "Book of the issue", Birds and People (see page 84). Mark also writes about starlings in the current issue. Enjoy.
Christmas is looming now with all its attendant concern for ritual. In fact the thing our daughters cherish most about the holiday is that everything we’ve always done, we’ll do again this time. It gives a sense of reassurance and continuity, but one element that’s omnipresent for most people in this country is the fundamental role of birds.
Birds, I hear, you murmur with a hint of surprise? Yes. Birds.
It’s more than just the central place of the roast turkey on the dining table, although it’s worth recalling that we eat 10 million of them and 300,000 geese every festive season. And behind those statistics lies the wider place of poultry in the entire British diet. Every day our nation consumes a million eggs and worldwide chickens provide us with more protein than any other animal and about half of all the meat consumed by humanity (the exact figure is a staggering 147 million tonnes). If the old adage – we are what we eat – has genuine meaning, then we are definitely more bird than any other organism.
Robin Erithacus rubecula, in sweet briar with rosehips in snow, Aberdeenshire, December by Genevieve Leaper (rspb-images.com)
Yet food is only one way in which we ‘consume’ birds. Our imaginations are stocked with an ecosystem of feathered friends, where they serve as symbols and metaphors or simply as reminders of our most cherished experiences. To prove it look along the mantelpiece as the 25 December draws near and you’ll find a growing flock of owls, robins and doves coming to roost in all those Christmas cards.
Robins are virtually synonymous with the season, in part because their red breasts chime with so many other holiday fixtures: the red in the holly, the scarlet of Santa’s suit and, lest we forget, the blood of Christ (it was this that once gave the robin its sanctified status among the British).
The presence of owls on Christmas cards is intriguing because at one time these birds were omens of ill fortune. Mercifully the British have come to appreciate these glorious creatures for what they truly are - birds of enormous beauty and integral elements of the natural environment. Perhaps they also supply a hint of mystery – a touch of Christmas magic if you like – to a celebration that seems to be assailed by consumerism and commercial pressures. The owls on the Christmas cards reminds us, in this season of short days and cold weather, to reflect how, together with out immediate family, there is a wider community of life – trees, flowers, insects, birds – that fills every day with pleasure and meaning and real value. Christmas is a time to give thanks for it all.
Save £10 on Birds and People if you buy from the RSPB shop
Birds and People by Mark Cocker and David Tipling (Random House £40) is a hugely acclaimed and encyclopaedic exploration of the cultural place of birds in human lives.
You can save £10 on this superb book by purchasing the book from the RSPB shop website
The perfect Christmas Present!